The Emergent Stories of XCOM: Enemy Unknown
by Ross Crawford
Spoilers for the first season of Game of Thrones. Yes, really.
When I was eight or nine years old, a very lucky friend of mine began playing Final Fantasy VII. When given the option to name his party members, he, probably like most kids, decided to name them after his school-pals. I was lucky enough to be named after the lion-tiger-wolf beast (ligolf?), Red XIII. In hindsight, he clearly didn’t like me that much. If we were best pals, he’d have bestowed my name upon Cloud or Barret. Yet at the time, I felt truly invested in the unfolding story of Strife & Co and begged him to keep me up-to-date with events. Particularly those relating to me. I mean, Red XIII.
It’s amazing what a name can do.
Since then, I’ve played so many games with this feature that it barely makes sense to call it a ‘feature’. Yet recently, one game has made me think about names, nostalgia and the power of emergent story-telling. That game is XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
But first, let me tell you a tale (or two).
A new, hip and exciting XCOM squad, unofficially codenamed ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’, are tasked with fending off the alien invasion threatening the very survival of the human race. At first, they are wildly successful. Under the compassionate-tyranny of Major Corgan, they are the envy of all other XCOM members. Spurred on by this success, they begin accepting increasingly risky missions. A fall from grace seems inevitable. It begins in Paris, with the tragic death of Pvt. Wretzky, cut down by a hail of laser fire. Soon after, Corporal Iha is blown to smithereens while rushing for the cover of a phone-box. Before long, the entire platoon is whittled down one-by-one, until only Major Corgan remains.
Spitting in the face of Fate and subverting the canon of HBO’s huge crossover hit, Game of Thrones, Recruit Neddard Stark has managed to avert the apparent inevitability of his premature death. In fairness, this is probably because his commander has gone to such extreme steps to keep him safe. The measly half-cover offered by a waist-high wall is not good enough for Ned. He must have the full-cover of a stone pillar or oak-tree at all times! This means he has escaped countless battles unscathed–his head firmly attached–but because his commander is so afraid to throw him into harm’s way, his growth as a soldier lags behind his comrades. So in this world Neddard may be alive and well, but it comes at a cost: he will never be the war-leader he was born to be. Instead, humiliatingly, he is overshadowed by the reckless MVP, Colonel Jaime Lannister.
Such stories (or bizarre fan fictions, if you’d prefer) are thanks to the open design of XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s character creation system, coupled with the unpredictable nature of its gameplay. Players can customise the name and (very) basic appearance of the soldiers under your command. This allows the player’s imagination to run wild. Assuredly most will populate their platoon with all manner of pop-cult heroes, friends, relatives and pets. Not only is this fun but it also generates a rich back-story and a strong sense of import to each and every conflict. Even if the soldiers never really look anything like their real-life counterparts, as seen above!
There is inherent joy in witnessing our favourite characters (or even our elderly relatives!) gunning down alien creatures. You never fully get used to the absurdity of Ned Stark or Granny Crawford in full power-armour. By drawing on nostalgia and latent love, an instant emotional attachment to these characters is instilled. Therefore, each engagement in XCOM is laden with a palpable sense of tension. Clearly, part of this is due to the unforgiving, high-stakes difficulty of the game. Yet additionally, we create an internal narrative as we play, that evolves as we progress from mission-to-mission. Stories are constructed dynamically in the heat of combat. Sometimes, they unfold faithfully and predictably, like the above allegory of the rise-and-fall of The Smashing Pumpkins. Yet other times, as in Sergeant Neddard’s story, we get the exact opposite of what we might expect. This is due to the exceedingly unpredictable nature of the game: we can never fully anticipate what will happen in each mission.
At times the stories generated are crushingly hard to accept. Around half-way through the game, I had assembled a rag-tag crew of some of my favourite pop-cult heroes: Jimi ‘Nightmare’ Hendrix, Julius ‘Nova’ Caesar, Maggie ‘Spitfire’ Smith, Chu ‘Rogue’ Chulainn and Lachlan ‘BAMF’ Maclean.* Dispatched to rescue civilians in Tokyo, a task deemed ‘Very Hard’, the mission ended up an unparalleled success. All civilians were saved and all soldiers emerged alive and almost entirely unscathed. I began to feel confident, cocky even. ‘Hah! That’s ‘Very Hard’ is it?! This is a cakewalk!’. How very wrong I was. The very next mission in Berlin seemed another run-of-the-mill alien abduction. Again rated at ‘Very Hard’, I rallied my crack-team with little fear of what lay ahead.
Within minutes, the smile was wiped off my face. Maggie was the first to fall, running headlong into a group of three Mutons who wasted no time in shooting her down. Shocked but determined, I rushed my squad forward, only to be faced with yet another group of Mutons and a new enemy, called a Cyberdisc. My impetuousity was to be a fatal mistake. In my eagerness to avenge Maggie’s death, I had little time to find adequate cover for my squad. Almost immediately, Chu Chulainn and Lachlan were blasted away by the combined fire of six Mutons. I consoled myself with the fact they died in battle, as true Gaelic heroes.
Quickly realising my team now had no chance of victory, I ordered the two survivors to retreat. Julius held the line as Colonel Hendrix high-tailed it back to the extraction point. Julius unloaded his rocket launcher, hoping to thin out the enemy ranks. He aimed at the Cyberdisc and pulled the trigger. A misfire. His rocket exploded in its launcher. In the blink of an eye, Julius was gone.
My own shock was mirrored by Colonel Hendrix. He panicked and refused to respond to my orders. In fear, he ran to a nearby train carriage and crouched behind the seats, cowering. Jimi’s final moments were spent firing wildly as the horde of Mutons closed in.
I had big plans for this squad. I envisioned their triumphant defeat of the alien threat (possibly in front of a war-torn White House). Yes, they would have lost a few of their comrades along the way; perhaps in the final mission, Jimi, always a true leader, would have nobly sacrificed his life to save his squad-mates. Instead, their deaths were almost entirely pointless, cut short on a largely insignificant foray to Berlin.
Yet this spontaneity is precisely why the game is so compelling. Events may not pan out as you expect but where would be the excitement in that?
And my crack-team of star players may have been forever lost but new heroes would always continue the fight.
Yes, clearly they look nothing like Sir Ian McKellen, Gannicus, Ellen Ripley, Thor, David Bowie or Samuel L. Jackson. Yet it’s startling that just by attaching a name to an identikit grunt, a strong emotional response can be created. Indeed, as the casualties mount, a jaded and cynical detachment begins to set in. It soon becomes easier to accept the randomised pre-set names that are initially provided, thereby distancing oneself from the soliders under your command. Maybe then their death in battle will not be quite so devastating. Even more troubling, you find yourself ranking soldiers not by their skill and experience but by how much you like them in real life. A kind of macabre game of chess, in which you juggle lives according to cool ratings.
Undoubtedly, all of this was all a very conscious decision by the creators, knowing full well that a fairly hackneyed sci-fi story-line would struggle to match up to each player’s pop-cultural holy-grail. The over-arching narrative of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is serviceable at best but these small-scale stories of triumph and tragedy are the true emotional core of the experience.
* Lachlan’s call-sign was not actually ‘BAMF’. It should have been though.